Chicago’s culinary scene ranges from dishes served on lavender-scented pillows (so the scent wafts up as you are eating) at Alinea to Italian Beef sandwiches from Portillo’s, but there seems to be not much in between. To fill this apparent void, some prominent Chicago chefs have been opening up more affordable, sister restaurants. XOCO apparently is the Mexican slang for “little sister” and I suppose it’s perfect term of endearment for the charming, precocious sibling of Bayless’s Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, which also happens to be right next door.
XOCO has an interesting schedule. XOCO usually opens around 7 or 8 am and serves breakfast until 10 am. From 10:30 to 11 am only pastries and beverages are sold. [I'm not sure what happens during 10 am to 10:30 am]. Tortas are served after 11am. Caldos (soups) are served after 3 pm and churros are served all day. Oh and they’re closed Sunday and Monday. Got that? Deb and I happened to get there around 3pm, so we were able to try the caldos as well.
You order at the counter, grab an open table and they bring the food, made-to-order for you. I took a picture of this sign that they had off to the side, listing the various farms where they get their ingredients from. Bayless has a separate foundation that is committed to promoting small, sustainable farms serving the Chicago area by providing them with capital development grants. It's not hard to see that the quality of the ingredients plays a significant role here.
In typical Deb + Soomeenshee fashion, we ordered way too much food. We ended up ordering two sandwiches and a caldos, which turned out to be a meal in it of itself and some churros and chocolate for dessert. Deb also ordered the Jamaica, a hibiscus and lemongrass drink. It was very tasty and not too sweet.
We asked the person at the counter what the most popular dishes were and they suggested the Pepito and the Ahodaga. The Pepito torta had braised tallgrass shortribs, caramelized onion, artisan Jack cheese, black beans and pickled jalapenos ($12). Doesn’t that sound so good?
It lived up to the hype. The meat was so juicy and tender and the rich, bold flavors of the short ribs permeated through the whole sandwich while the pickled jalapenos added an unexpected bite to the dish that kept me wanting more. The toasted bread was awesome too. I just doused on the salsa and took a bite and repeated over and over again until I looked down at the empty plate of crumbs in front of me.
I think Deb and I were so distracted by the Pepito, that we kind of neglected the Ahodaga while it lounged in a pool of spicy tomato broth. By the time I was ready to eat it, the otherwise crusty, hearty bread looked like it had suffered a nasty sun burn and became a languid and lifeless sponge. The Ahodaga torta had golden pork carnitas, black beans, spicy arbol chile sauce and pickled onions in it ($9.50). In retrospect, we should have eaten this first. The bread looked like the same bread that was used in the Pepito and it was outstanding, so we made a good piece of artisan bread go to waste. Shame on us. I was expecting a tomato soup, but I totally forgot that they asked us how spicy we wanted it and we said we were fine with spicy. The soup tasted a bit vinegary and the vinegar combined with the spiciness reminded me of kimchi. I know ... it's odd. I thought the pork didn’t have as much flavor as the short-ribs and the vinegary soup was a bit distracting to the overall sandwich. I will point out, however, that both parties that sat on either side both ordered the Ahogado torta, so it seems quite popular.
Since caldos are only served after 3 pm, which is when we were there, we had to order one. Their caldo of the day was duck. The broth had pieces of duck, roasted potatoes, butternut squash, a chiffonade of spinach leaves and julienned radishes in it. I dug the sprinkle of the thin slivers of radishes and spinach. It added some freshness to the otherwise mellow flavors of the soup.
Now for the piece de resistance. The churros and hot chocolate. We got the classic hot chocolate made with milk. It was a tasty cup of hot chocolate that tasted spicy, not spicy as in hot, but spicy in the sense that you could taste actual roasted cacao pieces in it. I liked that it wasn't overly sweet too. Here's a picture of the chocolate being made on site.
The churros were served hot from the fryer. It was a crispy on the outside and chewy in the center, dusted with a sugary cinnamon flurry. It had a bit too much sugar on it for our taste, so we had to take some of the excess sugar off and dipped it in the hot chocolate and ate them. The churros are $1.25 each or 3 for $3. We could not finish them, so I took the rest on the plane with me and probably made my seat mates pretty jealous.
XOCO did not disappoint and I have a feeling I'll be coming here quite a bit. They have a lot of interesting items on the menu and now that I can't get my churro fix from Disneyland anymore, I'll have to come here.